The Essentials of British Landscape Painting

Joseph Mallord William Turner, R.A.’s "Rome, from Mount Aventine," sold for £30.3 million on December 3, 2014 via Sotheby's.

The genre of British landscape painting, which flourished in the first half of the 19th century, has grown to become a prized international export. In 2015, the Getty Center in Los Angeles hosted an exhibition of Joseph Mallord William (J.M.W.) Turner (1775–1851), the first major display of his paintings on the West Coast of the United States. Producing some of the most innovative, albeit challenging visions of the British landscape, Turner’s paintings continually command extraordinarily high prices at auction, due to their rarity. In 2014, ‘Rome, From Mount Aventine’ (1835), sold at Sotheby’s for £30.3 million ($47.4 million), far surpassing its pre-sale estimate of £15-20 million. The sale broke the record for the highest price ever achieved for a pre-20th century British artist.

If painters such as J.M.W. Turner helped to define British landscape painting as a genre with its own distinctive voice, it is important to consider this voice within the broader context of European landscape painting. In short, in the history of landscape painting, Britain looked to its European counterparts in order to discover a means of describing itself in painting, and would in turn influence a generation of European painters.

18th Century Landscape Painting in Europe

Circle of Jacob Isaacsz. van Ruisdael, “A forest landscape with a river and a shepherd on a mossy path,” oil on canvas, 56 x 66.5 cm. Sold via Sotheby’s on May 3, 2017 for £14,000.

In the 18th century, European landscape painting was defined by two dominant schools; the Dutch and the Classical. It is notable that the term ‘landscape’ actually derives from the Dutch word ‘landschap,’ which indicates the early importance of landscape painting in the Netherlands; a genre which became important there much earlier than it did in other European countries. The development of Dutch landscape painting involved a crucial generation of Protestant painters who saw the idea of landscape as an alternative subject. This generation included Salomon van Ruysdael (1603-70), Aelbert Cuyp (1620-90), and Jacob van Ruisdael (1628-82).

While Dutch painting can be seen as an early predecessor to British landscape painting, it is also important to consider the influence of Classicism, largely developed in Italy during the 17th century (during which the Grand Tour became a crucial rite of passage, which broadened the influence of emerging French and British painters). A key proponent of this school was Nicolas Poussin (1650–1651), a French painter who would spend most his career in Rome and was heavily influenced by the ideals of classical antiquity. In paintings such as ‘Landscape with a Calm’ (1651), Poussin translated the ideals of balance and harmonious composition into a landscape vision that he sought to perfect; the result would feel far more contrived than his British contemporaries.

The Influence of European Landscape Painting

Jacob van Ruisdael, “A Road leading into a Wood,” about 1655-60. Oil on canvas, 54.5 x 71 cm. Salting Bequest, 1910. NG2563. Photo courtesy The National Gallery.

During the 18th century, British painters looked to the Netherlands and Italy in order to develop their own painterly approach. Thomas Gainsborough (1727-88) was influenced more by the naturalistic paintings of 17th century Dutch artists than French and Italian ‘Classical’ painters. In paintings such as ‘Road through a wood’ (1747), the influence of Ruisdael is notable in terms of the ‘screen-like’ arrangement of trees.

If Gainsborough was influenced by Dutch painting, Richard Wilson, the supposed ‘father of British landscape painting’ had lived in Italy and carried an understanding of Classical painting which informed his perception of the British landscape. In paintings such as ‘The Destruction of the Children of Niobe’ (1761), this influence is profound.

John Constable: A Realist

John Constable (British, 1776 – 1837), “Wivenhoe Park, Essex,” 1816. Oil on canvas, Widener Collection. Photo courtesy National Gallery of Art.

During the early 19th century, British painters began to carve an increasingly distinctive niche within the Broader landscape project. Crucial to this were two painters from southeast England who would eventually become synonymous with the genre, despite their highly different approaches to the British landscape. These painters were J.M.W. Turner and John Constable, (1776-1837).

Constable, was in many ways a ‘Realist’ whose reassuringly honest paintings of the idyllic English countryside emphasized the idea of ‘truth’ in natural scenes, untouched by human influence. Unlike his contemporaries, Constable never traveled abroad and remained focused on the beauty of ‘common’ things throughout his life.

In paintings such as ‘Wivenhoe Park, Essex,’ (1816) Constable explores scenes of British rural charm and familiarity within a distinctively ‘new’ language of painting. If Turner learnt from those who came before him by imitation, Constable absorbed their influence in his overall approach.

J.M.W. Turner: A Romantic

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), “Waterfall among rocks, Wales,” c. 1794. Sold via Gorringes on September 21, 2016 for £10,000.

In contrast to Constable, Turner was a Romantic who explored the British landscape in terms of light and atmosphere. Unlike Constable, Turner travelled extensively and was heavily influenced by Europe. He first visited Italy in 1828. Just one year later, he would visit Italy and never return to England.

Influenced by Classical notions of harmonious composition, Turner looked directly to painters such as Nicolas Poussin, Richard Wilson and Titian. If Constable can be seen as a Realist, Turner was a staunch Romantic who approached landscape painting with a highly visionary, lyrical approach. In paintings such as ‘Kirkby Lonsdale Churchyard,’ (1818) his use of carefully placed figures as ‘foreground’ perfectly blends with the gentle mastery of light that he would become invariably associated with.

The Legacy of British Landscape Painting

If British landscape painters looked to Europe to find their own voice, it is important to consider the eventual influence that they would have on European painters. Constable’s influence on French painting was profound. French Romantic artist Eugène Delacroix once described him as, ‘le pere de notre ecole de paysage’ (the father of our landscape school). Furthermore, Constable’s luminous palette and ‘broken’ landscape can also be cited as an influence on French Impressionism.

A radical painter in his time, Turner’s influence on the French Impressionists has also been noted. He would eventually become known as an artistic genius. Described by John Ruskin as a painter who was could “stirringly and truthfully measure the moods of Nature.”

In 2011, the British town of Margate opened Turner Contemporary, a gallery founded in honor of Turner’s historical association with the seaside town, solidifying the artist’s profound influence on art movements that followed his death.